Thursday, January 17, 2008

Dallas D.A. Watkins Shows The Way

By Jeff Deskovic

Craig Watkins is the Dallas County, Texas, District Attorney. He has been in office for two years. The work that he has done in that time has been nothing short of revolutionary. Watkins is concerned with ensuring that the convictions that are achieved by his office have integrity; meaning that only the guilty are convicted and that convictions are achieved without police or prosecutorial misconduct as opposed to a ‘win-at-all-cost’; and, that any past injustices are corrected. He seeks legislative changes in order to decrease the chances of wrongful
convictions occurring with their usual frequency. He is a beacon of light to justice and serves as an example to district attorneys everywhere who are serious about justice.

His office’s Conviction Integrity Unit was the idea of former federal prosecutor Terri Moore, who is now Watkins’ top assistant. The idea is to have an in-house oversight unit to ensure that only those who are guilty are convicted, and that those convictions were not obtained through police or prosecutorial misconduct. Additionally, the unit insures that past injustices are corrected, and that wrongful convictions are studied to determine what the causes were with a view toward preventing them in the future. Included in their review is a determination of whether there was any inappropriate pattern or practice on the part of police or prosecutors. To date there have been a total of 39 exonerations in Dallas, 15 of them involving DNA, and 24 that did not. Many of the wrongful convictions exposed, as such, by DNA were caused as a result of misidentification. Still, Mike Ware, who heads the integrity unit, says the District Attorney’s Of-fice wants to figure out “how did it get to the point where the victim is picking out the wrong person in the courtroom.”

To create the unit, Watkins had to go before the Dallas County Commissioners to ask for funding. Two of the five members opposed Watkins, arguing that the unit would place the District Attorney’s Office in the role of defense counsel, and that the oversight was not necessary. In a 3-2 vote, Watkins got some funding, but not all that he had asked for. The funding was only enough to be able to hire two attorneys, one investigator, and one secretary. To make up for the lack of funding, he has collaborated with The Texas Innocence Project, and has law student interns, working with the paid staff, reviewing cases. They are reviewing more than 400 cases in which his predecessor, Bill
Hill, denied prior testing.

There are currently eight cases awaiting test results. Under Watkins’ watch, five people have thus far been cleared based upon DNA. Here
are the five cases:

• Charles Chatman was cleared on Jan. 3, 2007 after serving 27 years for Rape. He was convicted when he was 20 years old, and is now 47. The cause of his wrongful conviction was being misidentified after being picked out of a photo array. After earlier tests proved inconclusive, Chatman recently agreed to Y-STR testing, an advanced form of DNA testing that can determine a profile from a small sample. The risk was that this final test could have consumed the last of the biological evidence in the case. It proved to be the right decision, however, as the profile proved that another man committed the rape for which Chatman was serving a 99-year sentence. Chatman said he was denied parole
three times during his 27 years in prison because he refused to admit guilt in a crime he didn’t commit. “Every time I’d go to parole, they’d
want a description of the crime or my version of the crime,” Chatman said. He told the Parole Board, “I don’t have a version of the crime. I never committed the crime. I never will admit to doing this crime that I know I didn’t do.”

• Larry Fuller served 19 ½ years out of a 50 year sentence for Sexual Assault based on a misidentification. Initially the victim stated that
she could not identify her assailant because the room was barely lit and the crime took place about an hour before sunrise. A week after the crime the police, nonetheless, asked her to make an identification. After viewing one photo array she said that Fuller, “looks like the guy,” but that she could not be sure. After being shown a second array she then said that she was sure it was him. Additionally, a serological
test was performed on semen collected from a rape kit. Fuller was serologically included in that he was a non-secretor, and the blood type of
the rape kit fluid matched the victim’s own blood type. Therefore, serological testing did not exclude Fuller, but it also did not identify him as the perpetrator. At trial, however, a prosecutor inaccurately summed up the scientific testimony by saying it placed Mr. Fuller among 20 percent of the male population that could have committed the crime. Mr. Fuller first contacted the Innocence Project in the
mid-1990s. A 2003 DNA test was inconclusive, but a 2006 test ruled him out as the assailant, and he was released.

• Greg Wallis served 17 years out of 50 years for Burglary of a Habitation with the Intent To Commit Sexual Assault. The victim gave a description to police but, without any leads, the investigation went unsolved. After four months police circulated a flier about the attack in a local jail. An inmate told the Irving police that Gregory Wallis had a tattoo similar to the description given by the victim. The victim subsequently chose Wallis out of a photo array. Wallis and his wife testified that they were together at the time of the crime, but he was
convicted anyway. A 2005 DNA test could not entirely rule out Mr. Wallis as the rapist, and he rejected an offer that would have freed
him from prison provided that he reg-ister as a sex offender for life. A second test in 2006 proved that Mr. Wallis was not responsible for the attack

• Andrew Gossett served 7 years out of 50 years in prison in the 1999 Sexual Assault of a Dallas woman. He came under suspicion based on
his matching the general description given; and then the victim erroneously picked him out of a photo array. He had been seeking DNA testing in 2001, but the then-District Attorney prevented him. In 2006, with Watkins in office, tests showed that he was innocent.

• James Giles was convicted of Aggravated Rape. He served 10 years in prison, and 14 years on parole as a registered sex offender. The female victim identified a photo of Stanley Bryant, the perpetrator, who was an acquaintance of the couple, on the day after the attack. A month after the crime, a CrimeStoppers tip led police to include James Curtis Giles in a lineup, and the victim identified him as one of the three rapists. Neither the male victim nor another eyewitness identified James Curtis Giles in a lineup or at trial. James Curtis Giles, at 29, was a decade older than the description of the perpetrators, and he had two prominent gold teeth which the victim also didn’t mention. His alibi was that he had eaten dinner with his wife and afterwards went home and went to bed early.

Documents now show that evidence indicating the identity of the actual perpetrators – including a man named James Earl Giles – was available to prosecutors before trial and was withheld from defense attorneys for James Curtis Giles. In 1984, one of the attackers, Stanley Bryant, pled guilty. He said he committed the crime with a man named “James” and man named “Michael.” The next year, Bryant signed an affidavit that James Curtis Giles was not the “James” who participated in this crime. While in prison, James Curtis Giles met a man who lived near the victims and had called CrimeStoppers during the investigation of the crime and told them that one of the perpetrators was named “James Giles.” The informant said he had learned that a different person, James Earl Giles, was the alleged attacker.

Since 1991, both the informant and James Curtis Giles have said that the wrong James Giles was convicted of this rape. James Curtis Giles served 10 years of his sentence before he was paroled in 2001.

In each of these cases, Watkins consented to the DNA testing, and when the results cleared the men, he joined defense motions to have the
convictions reversed and the men released. In each of these cases his predecessor, Bill Hill, had successfully opposed testing.

District Attorney Craig Watkins attributes the wrongful convictions to “a past culture of overly aggressive prosecutors trying to win at any
cost.” Watkins opposes that philosophy, stating, “We’ve been taught that the district attorney is supposed to convict. But the district attorney is supposed to be seeking justice. My job as Dallas District Attorney is to protect the citizens. Sometimes that means exonerating the wrongfully convicted; sometimes it means sending the guilty to prison.”

Part of that change of culture involves correcting past prosecutorial misconduct, going beyond just simply looking at DNA, and sometimes
past simple guilt and innocence to include justice. In other words, the ‘ends do not justify the means’. There have been several examples of Watkins’ commitment to this credo.

• Joseph Lave had a scheduled execution date last September when prosecuters realized that evidence requested by his appellate lawyers was
not released, and was possibly lied about. “When we looked at Lave’s file, it was an embarrassment to my profession. I don’t know if Lave is guilty, But I think he is. But if you think he’s guilty, why would you withhold that information that causes a problem 20 years later?” District Attorney Watkins said. He stressed, “You have a responsibility, not only to the Defendant, but to the Victim’s family.” Another example involved a judge calling Watkins and informing him that a proscutor was not turning over evidence to a defense attorney that the
law required him to. When Watkins’ confronted the prosecutor, he claimed that he did not know that the law required it to be turned over. Watkins demoted him, and he later quit.

Craig Watkins gives talks in forums open to the public about wrongful convictions and his program just about every day. In addition to speaking in Texas, he has also made presentations in other states, including New York. Once the studies have been completed by his Conviction Integrity Unit, Watkins told this reporter that he intends to use those findings to form the basis upon which he will
make proposals for reforms that he believes the Texas Legislature should adopt. In the meanwhile, the idea of checking the integrity of prior cases has begun to spread.

In Harris County, judges appointed three lawyers to examine whether 161 cases were tainted by problems at the Houston Police Crime Laboratory. Some of the cases date back more than 20 years, and officials with the program say they’ve sought advice from Dallas County. Bob Wicoff, the first attorney appointed for the Harris County program, sought advice from Dallas. “I’m getting their input on it,” he said, “They’ve said they would help.”

In addition, the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office no longer seeks the harshest of punishments but, instead, reserves that for when the crime calls for it. Mr. Alex, who oversees the Organized Crime, Specialized Crime and Gang Units, said “You can [seek the harshest punishments], but it’s not always the right thing.” In a presentation given in Bronxville about a year ago, Westchester D.A. Janet DiFiore stated that although some crimes call for prison time, there should not be a ‘knee jerk, one-size-fits-all’ reaction. She mentioned that her Office’s function was not merely to convict the guilty but to see that justice was done; indicating that her office had an “internal Second Look Program.” I have recently contacted her of-fice and, in the near future, I intend to explore the details of that program.

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